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Tampa female firefighter fired after filing harassment lawsuit

Tanja Vidovic filed suit March 23. She was fired the next day.
Published Apr. 7, 2016

TAMPA — Hired by Tampa Fire Rescue in late 2008, Tanja Vidovic became pregnant about a year later.

A fire captain told her "this would not have happened if she had kept her legs closed," Vidovic alleges in a federal lawsuit against the city of Tampa.

Vidovic, one of several female firefighters who raised concerns about the department's treatment of women in its ranks in the Tampa Bay Times last spring, filed suit on March 23. She cited the captain's comment as the first of dozens of instances of discrimination and sexual harassment in her time at the department.

RELATED: Women face multiple hurdles within Tampa Fire Rescue

On March 24, Tampa Fire Rescue fired her, citing "moral turpitude."

In the firing memo, Fire Chief Thomas Forward says Vidovic violated the city of Tampa personnel manual, specifically: "falsification, misrepresentation, or material omission of statements, testimony, or any document or record completed in the course of employment or in obtaining employment, including group insurance claims."

Department spokesman Jason Penny declined to comment.

In her suit, Vidovic describes disparaging comments from fellow firefighters, including, "women would be so much better if we could train them like dogs" and that she "looked good when she sweats."

Among other grievances, she says she was regularly passed over for promotions, harassed about pumping breast milk and reprimanded for violating rules that male firefighters broke without issue.

In 2015, Vidovic and several others told the Times about Tampa Fire Rescue's poor track record in accommodating female employees.

After a personnel chief retired amid a sexual harassment investigation, the women spoke out about outdated facilities, harassment, privacy issues and retaliation.

"A lot of the men on the job are fine with working with women, but the ones who aren't seem to be really loud," Vidovic told the Times. "It's accepted, people aren't reprimanded for it. And it's an environment of you're a tattletale and you're ruining the party if you say anything."

Soon after the stories were published, Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn announced changes "to accommodate all" in the department after initially downplaying the concerns. Forward later issued several memos to firefighters, reminding them of a policy that forbids them to speak to the news media without his approval.

Female firefighters began working at the department about 40 years ago, but the vast majority of its 600-plus employees are male.

"We don't hire children; we hire professionals here," the chief told the Times in 2015. "We really haven't had a situation, to my knowledge, where anybody has been put in a bad situation."

According to the lawsuit, after having her first baby in 2010, Vidovic was told to wash her breast pump in the HazMat decontamination room. Without a private room to pump, she had to do it in the computer room, stopping anytime a call came in, the suit says.

In summer 2011, she says, a captain told her "it is better to be seen and not heard at this station," and suggested she work elsewhere.

Another captain told her, while the two were running, that "no one would notice if we disappeared into the woods for 20 minutes," she says. She says the same captain later told her that, to hire women as firefighters, standards have to be lowered threefold.

After becoming pregnant again in 2013, Vidovic was shuffled among stations and "shunned," the lawsuit says. She requested diversity training and updated pregnancy policies, but her requests were ignored. Complaints to human resources about a lack of separate restrooms for female firefighters were rejected.

In May 2015, the lawsuit says, Vidovic met with the fire chief. She told him that when she turned down a captain's advances, the captain made her scrub Dumpsters. She told the chief about the promotions she didn't get, despite her seniority. And she told him that human resources did nothing, instead shuffling her to different stations.

Later that month, Vidovic filed a discrimination charge with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and the Florida Commission on Human Relations.

Vidovic continued to email human resources. But in August, the lawsuit says, a district chief and personnel chief told her she couldn't submit any more complaints. They told her she wasn't being harassed.

Her troubles repeated themselves with her third child late last year, the lawsuit says.

In mid March, the U.S. Department of Justice issued a notice of Vidovic's right to sue the city.

Times staff writer Sara DiNatale contributed to this report. Contact Claire McNeill at cmcneill@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8321.

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